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Views from the third world. Earth.


What Should An Individual Do In The Face Of Collapse?

Vishnu’s avatars broadly evolve from fish to tortoise to boar to man-lion to small man to man to Rama to Buddha and Kalki, anon. Fascinating how they broadly follow the path of evolution.

What should an individual do in the face of collapse? Broadly, your dharma, but what is that? The most common example of dharma is from the Mahabharata. In that epic, the prince Arjuna is debating whether to slay his noble but dickish relatives. He breaks down on the battlefield because he doesn’t wanna. Does he follow his compassion or his duty? What is his duty? He asks his charioteer, who is luckily Lord Vishnu incarnate and basically the highest authority on the subject.

Mahabharata translation by Ganguli and Roy
“Arjuna said, — “How, O slayer of Madhu, can I with arrows contend in battle against Bhishma and Drona, deserving as they are. O slayer of foes, of worship? Without slaying (one’s) preceptors of great glory, it is well (for one), to live on even alms in this world. By slaying preceptors, even if they are avaricious of wealth, I should only enjoy pleasures that are bloodstained!”

This ‘Slayer of Madhu’ here is Lord Krishna, Lord Vishnu, in disguise. He tells Arjuna—if I may paraphrase—‘Slay.’ Lord Krishna said,

Mahabharata translation by Ganguli and Roy
Know that [the soul] to be immortal by which all this [universe] is pervaded. No one can compass the destruction of that which is imperishable… He who thinks it (the soul) to be the slayer and he who thinks it to be the slain, both of them know nothing; for it neither slays nor is slain.

Krishna’s point is broadly the first law of thermodynamics. That ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or converted from one form to another.’ Being alive is obviously some manifestation of energy, and energy cannot be destroyed, even if you kill your cousins. As Krishna says about the soul, “It is never born, nor doth it ever die; nor, having existed, will it exist no more. Unborn, unchangeable, eternal, and ancient, it is not slain upon the body being perished.”

This 10,000 foot view of a god, however, is not especially convincing to humans. Why does Arjuna have to do the killing? Couldn’t he just go to the forest and not kill his cousins? This is getting to the point of dharma, which is not doing the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing but simply your role.

Krishna’s point was that Arjuna was a Kshatriya and a Kshatriya’s role was to fight. They were warriors. That was their job, and Arjuna was at work. This execution of dharma (duty) is called Yoga (devotion).

Mahabharata translation by Ganguli and Roy
Thy concern is with work only, but not with the fruit (of work). Let not the fruit be thy motive for work; nor let thy inclination be for inaction. Staying in devotion, apply thyself to work, casting off attachment (to it), O Dhananjaya, and being the same in success or unsuccess. This equanimity is called Yoga (devotion).

This brings me back my point, which is broadly your dharma. On one hand this concept is liberating because you don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to have the right opinions on everything (as the media seems to expect) and you don’t have to be responsible for all this shit (as Democracy™ implies). You can just do your small part of the greater whole and not try to save the world. Unless you’re glowing blue right now, that’s not your dharma. Most dharmas are quite small. So what is your dharma? Well, that’s the problem.

Dharma is that most Hindu of paradoxes. It’s a social consciousness that’s supposed to fit in an individual skull. Only an individual can know their own dharma, but they have to obliterate their individuality to know it. It’s like the government knowing how much you owe in taxes, but forcing you to struggle through and guess on your own.

Society is supposed to tell you your dharma, but when society itself is collapsing, what are you supposed to do? Western capitalism has systematically obliterated family and cultural ties to make an atomized population of individuals and consumers. Science peddles the lie that there is one ‘normal’ for everyone and if you just read the right studies you’ll know. Economists lie that this is for the greater good.

Yoga has gone from an act of devotion to another manifestation of vanity. All of the social ties that would give you clues to your dharma have been commodified. Mindfulness has become an app and karma is a chameleon. What’s a hapless mortal supposed to do, especially since the next incarnation of Vishnu is 400,000 years away?

The first problem with dharma in the modern age is understanding ones place in the world. The second is accepting it.

The great delusion of Democracy™ is that everyone is a fractional ruler and must therefore be a philosopher king. You must have the right opinions and support the right actions or risk social opprobrium. This is impossible, exhausting, and not dharmic. Unless you’re glowing blue right now, it’s highly unlikely that your dharma is to save the world. You don’t need to feel that pressure, which is a relief.

What’s not a relief, however, is that dharma is usually miserable. Arjuna might have agonized over killing his cousins, but his cousins had to get killed. It’s a relief that it’s not your dharma to save the whole world, but then who’s going to save you? Probably nobody. As mentioned, the cavalry (the next incarnation of Vishnu is supposed to come on a white horse) isn’t coming. Not in this birth, or the next one. Which is a bummer.

A lot of the discourse about collapse is about how to stop collapse, which is simply impossible 400 years in. Or even 10,000 years in, since the end of the last Ice Age and start of this climactic period, which is now nearing its climax period. As Billy Joel said, we didn’t start the fire. As the Greeks said, Prometheus was heavily punished for bringing us the thing in the first place, and in hindsight, maybe the gods were right. With our fire and oil we have torched the world and caused a mass extinction. That’s the dharma of billions of living beings right now. To die, many of them to not be reborn. Entire species are being lost. Such is life, unfortunately. Endless cycles of creation and destruction.

100% of the time it is your dharma to die, then it is your karma to do it again. Dharma is really the feeling of karma in this life, and it’s always slipping through your fingers, receding across the horizon. Given that it is our lot to suffer and die, the only question is for how long, and when does it end? Hindu scriptures actually put a date on this, but you won’t like the answer.

Everybody wants to be a Vishnu-come-lately but we have no concept of the timescale of higher beings.

The Kali Yuga

The Kali Yuga (age of Kali) is the worst, and it technically started 3,000 years ago. We’re in it now. This Vedic number dates our decline to the Axial Age, when our perverse idea of ‘progress’ starts. When we talk about ‘growth’ we are in fact measuring cancer and being proud of how big our tumor has gotten.

The Vedic date is surprisingly good. Around 10,000 years the last Ice Age ended and humans spread across the Earth, while other types of humans and megafauna mysteriously disappeared. What we call ‘indigenous civilizations’ learned and adapted to live in relative balance for thousands of years, but they were soon genocided by violent West Asian tribes that didn’t give a fuck. And so the sixth mass extinction resumed with a vengeance, this time diesel powered.

If you read people from this Axial Age (Confucius, Buddha), they say that we were living in a fallen age back then. They thought people had gotten wicked and ignorant already. They had no idea. Just look at us now. All the information in the world, and less wisdom than ever. How long will this civilizational decline continue? We managed to cover it up by desecrating the tombs of wiser ancient lifeforms and burning their lifeforce, but now that fossil flame is running out. What now?

The bad news is that the Vedas say the Kali Yuga goes on for another 429,000 years, to be precise. This sounds crazy, but the last time life fucked with the thermostat this bad (The Great Oxygen Holocaust, never forget) it took millions of years for microbes to cybernetically balance the climate again. I’m not saying I follow the scriptures number by number, but 400,000 years is not unrealistic, biologically speaking. It’s actually generous. That’s how long the bad times could go on.

I’m not saying that this is true, but I can’t say it’s false either. Scientific estimates say we’re going to shit by 2100 and then scientists go on finding novel ways to frack gas and accelerate the decline. These people laugh and religion and superstition, but those beliefs at least kept some fearful balance with the universe. Meanwhile science unbalances the whole thing and calls it ‘discovery’.

In this context, ancient religion seems more realistic than the delusions modern civilization labors under, like infinite growth on a finite planet. An elephant-headed god riding a mouse might seem fanciful, but Lord Ganesh isn’t killing me, whereas the stock market actively is. We need to look beyond the tyranny of quarterly reports to see what happens across millennia, and that’s where old-timey religion comes in.

If we take 400,000 more years of fucked as an estimate, you have a sense of an individual’s responsibility in all this. It’s like an ant’s responsibility in a flood. Pass some pheromones to your neighbor I guess, but there’s not much you can do about the whole. And that’s the point really.

Faith

The point of understanding things from this perspective is not getting dates and details right. They’re all fundamentally stories. The point of stories about gods is realizing that there’s something bigger than you and that it has been going on for longer than you can imagine. This is all the higher truth which stories help you get to, and Hinduism offers many different paths to the same realization. Humility. Worship. Submission. You don’t even have to get there through Hinduism. I follow all the gods of my island and they all point in the same direction.

You don’t need to accept a Vedic date for collapse, but you can understand that it’s been going on for much longer than your lifetime and will continue after you’re dead. This is just true. You don’t need to take refuge in Lord Krishna (indeed, he’s not my favored Hindu deity) but you can listen to his general point about shutting the fuck up and doing your duty, however great or small.

In the face of great collapse, this is ultimately all we small creatures can do. So that’s my advice to you, fellow existence during a mass extinction event. Get right with god (pick one), get right with culture, get right with family, love your neighbor. Worry about your self last and you’ll be taken care of, in ways you can’t understand and don’t need to. Don’t do your dharma cause it brings you benefit (though it can). As Krishna says, you don’t do the work for the fruits. You do the work for the works sake. Sometimes it’s dirty work and sometimes it’s delightful, but you do it as best you can.

That’s my advice to you, fellow existent during a mass extinction event. Get right with god, get right with culture, get right with family, love your neighbor. Worry about your self last and you’ll be taken care of. You don’t do it cause it brings you benefit (though it does). As Krishna says, you don’t do the work for the fruits. You do the work for the works sake. Sometimes it’s dirty work and sometimes it’s delightful, but you do it as best you can.

So that’s the best an individual can do in a time of collapse. Obliterate their individuality to find a higher social being, in a society that’s being obliterated too. This is dharma in decline. This is the karma of collapse. This is the trauma of being born in the age of ‘fucking around’ and dying in the age of ‘finding out’. There is no answer here of course. I just hope it gets you closer to the question.